Japan prime ministers haunted by ever-present media

May 27, 2010

Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama at a news conference on April 28, 2010. (REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

JAPAN-POLITICS/It’s not unusual for a politician whose popularity has slumped to want to avoid the media. But for Japan’s premiers it’s not just a question of keeping critical newspaper editorials out of sight.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, just like his five predecessors, faces questioning from a posse of reporters morning and evening at least five days a week. And just like his predecessors, he seemed to find these brief  “doorstep news conferences” exhilarating while voter support for his government soared around the 70 percent level after a landslide election victory last year.

Now that only about 20 percent of Japanese say they support him in the run-up to a key upper house election, Hatoyama has visibly lost enthusiasm for commenting twice a day on camera. At first known for lengthy explanations, he has become increasingly curt. He even admitted recently that he’d prefer to skip the doorsteps in favour of holding more frequent sit-down news conferences, inviting a broader range of reporters from magazines and internet outlets.  “But this is the custom,” he said forlornly.

Life was not necessarily easier for Japanese prime ministers before the doorstep idea was introduced by the popular Junichiro Koizumi, who served as premier from 2001-2006. Before his time, young reporters from Japan’s generously staffed big media companies were sent to camp out by the door of the prime minister’s office, taking note of whoever visited him and following him every time he left the room. Some leaders made it clear they found this constant attention irritating.

A move from the quaint 1920s building to a modernist new prime ministerial office in 2002 cut off reporters’ access to the premier’s office door and Koizumi sought to quell media protests by promising to speak to reporters twice a day. No matter how far their support falls, none of his successors has dared abandon the system for fear of sparking a media backlash. 

But some have sought to look beyond the cub reporters sent to quiz them and speak directly to the electorate. Shinzo Abe, premier from 2006-2007, became known for staring straight into the camera lens while speaking to reporters, in an effort to give the impression he was speaking directly to television viewers.

Hatoyama tried out a similar tactic when his ratings started to nosedive, but last week denied this was due to any change in his outlook.

“If I look at everyone’s faces, people complain that my eyes flicker around,” he told reporters.

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